Distraction By Degrees
The morning was that odd combination of illuminated gun metal grey, where the spring light refused to get tied up amongst the clouds. There would be rain, there always was, but it would be short, sharp and fleeting. Helen was still in the suite, despite the fact she'd been awake for over an hour now, mulling over her breakfast as though it had the capability of multiplying and providing her with the perfect excuse to stay. It was more substantial than yesterday, eggs and hash browned potatoes, a little bacon, all tasting distinctly American, but exquisite nonetheless.
She had to admit feeling a twinge of regret alongside the relief when Tesla had announced he couldn't join her. Something told her she should have enquired as to why, but her mind had been elsewhere, lingering on the darkness from which she had awoken, just as she had the night before. It was jarring beyond belief, to realise you were somewhere so safe, so non-threatening, when seconds before your mind had been convinced of its imminent demise. So he had sprinted off, explaining something about the lab again, and left her to the comforts of a freshly cooked breakfast in bed.
Well, she hadn't stayed in bed very long. It felt too much like being an invalid, though she was sure that hadn't been the intention when he’d brought it in. Reaching for Nikola's robe as though it were now her own she wrapped the cord around her, she’d padded, tray in hand, into the living room. The borrowed gown didn't swamp her like the hardy seaman's coat had, though she had to admit, she was growing quite fond of the feeling of being enveloped in something warm and secure. Even if it did come with the faintest hint of Nikola's cologne – not too much to overpower, but enough to keep making her think he'd reappeared in the room.
Now sat by the fire-side, watching the pinkish embers of last night's flames over her morning tea, Helen was trying to reconcile the need to put her life in order, with the fact that this necessitated walking straight past the Titanic Inquiry. She wasn't sure whether her sudden instinct to avoid the place was more from a fear of recalling it so soon after her dreams, or the fact that if she let herself waltz in there she'd probably never leave. It would be like an irresistible iron ball, dragging her beyond reach.
She sighed, her own indecision beginning to annoy her, and stood up, cup in hand, to pace towards the window. Something about skylines always seemed to clear Magnus' head – the open sky, the overwhelming size of it all, the infinite possibilities. Picking her way between the furniture she realised there was actually a luncheon table, perfectly located next to the view. Clearly it wasn't being used for its intended purpose, however, covered as it was in a rather un-table-shaped sheet.
Magnus couldn't resist, lifting up the cover a little with her free hand to peek beneath, and frowning in interest at the contraption.
"What are you up to now Nikola?" she muttered to herself, flipping back the corner and beholding an utterly baffling array of copper wires, clips, and spark plugs.
Problem with Nikola's inventions were they never came with a manual. Well, it was one way of making sure you were needed, thought Helen, knowing full well how many of his colleagues, employers and assistants would like to be shot of him at the first opportunity; liability that he so often was. She smirked a little, enjoying the fact that he wasn't there to complain at the supposed unfairness of her comment.
Carefully setting the china at a distance from his invention she exposed it properly, balling up the linen and throwing it across the back of a chair in order to get a proper look. The spark plugs were familiar to her, a key design in transferring electrical charge and creating said spark. He'd once explained the concept to her over fifteen bottles of wine after the fire at 5th Avenue, all the while lamenting the fact that his vampirism still prevented him from getting pie-eyed. The topic seemed to perk him up a little, until it got to the part where he remembered that the one he'd been so close to perfecting was now nothing but charred remains. She'd literally never seen him as depressed, not before or since.
More recently, he'd been tinkering with them in the Sanctuary labs during his brief stay in London. The question was, what were these ones for? As a student of biology first and foremost, technology wasn't Magnus' strongest suit, but that didn't stop her delving in from time to time. Perhaps this had something to do with the aeroplanes he'd been working on with Astor. The thought stopped her dead.
How could she have not told him? She scrunched her eyes together and uttered a groan, annoyed at herself. Wondering how on earth it hadn't been at the forefront of her mind until now! John Astor had been on board with her, the richest passenger after Ismay himself, and she'd known, known since she’d found his wife Madeleine on the Carpathia, that he hadn't made it. Oh she was going to have some serious apologies to make. True, they'd avoided each other for years over the Colorado experiments, but after the whole Worth affair, Nikola appeared to have swallowed his ego long enough to reconcile with J.J. Before you knew it they were drawing up plans as if nothing had ever happened.
She remembered bumping into Astor on deck and having the most delightful conversation. Mostly at Nikola's expense if she recalled – the one experience they had in common. Ever the gentleman, he'd very kindly suggested she come to their fancy dress ball when they got to New York. No doubt it would have been a lovely evening.
What a mess. Her hands trembled a little, and deciding it was the chill she called up the maid to start a fire. She'd tell Tesla when he got back, Helen decided, telling herself that a few more hours wasn't going to make the blindest bit of difference anyway.
It started raining outside, the droplets hitting the glass plane on a windy slant that obscured the buildings on her horizon. Turning on a lamp and bringing it over she took another look at the mystery object still lain out across the cherry wood, and discovered a wine-stained copy of Faraday's 'Experimental Researches in Electricity' sat at its side. Curiously she flipped through the dog-eared pages and settled into a nearby chair, occasionally pausing to prod at the machine and ascertain their theoretical connection. A metallic clicking sound, like something tapping on a pipe, came through the air vent every now and then, distracting her a little. The wind must have been blowing some, she mused, attempting to remain focused and ignoring the irritatingly irregular beats as best she could.
It crossed her mind more than once during her prolonged stares that there had to be a power source somewhere. Convinced by now that the device wasn't active, she put the book to one side in the hope of making faster headway alone, and inspected it closer. Tracing the circuit back she could only find a thumb-sized contact pad and then... nothing. She smiled triumphantly, realising with appreciation that he was using it to channel his own electrical powers into the wire coils. It looked like some kind of electrical storage unit, but then, why the breaks?
Eventually her stomach growled in complaint, disrupting her thought patterns enough for her to take a look at the clock and realise it was already half twelve. God, sometimes she swore the pursuit of science created some kind of time vortex around her.
Letting herself get distracted by it was never hard. Especially when there were so many other things she didn't want to do. Indulgence time over, she reprimanded herself; she had money to sort out, telegrams to send, and things to buy. She could ask Tesla about this later. Perhaps over dinner tonight… she paused, smiling smugly at another plan starting to form in her head. Yes indeed, that would be a far more interesting use of time, and not without its own importance.
She was going to invite him to lunch instead. He really did need to know about Astor, procrastination wasn't going to help with that. Then Magnus could pick Tesla's brains about the project sat on his table, if he'd let her. It certainly made for a better plan than letting him stew over whatever the news might provoke: depression, annoyance, self-pity – with Nikola there was never any way to tell how it would go. He might be completely indifferent – who knows? There'd be plenty of time to go about her business in the afternoon hours.
The outfit she'd managed to procure yesterday was black, with just a hint of white on the trim and sash: sombre, yet strangely impenetrable. Last she'd worn black for any length of time was in the months after her mother's funeral, and ever since she’d avoided the colour. As though to wear it was to conjure death. Even after her father's disappearance, when everyone else had donned black armbands out of respect for a man they could only presume dead, she'd refused. To mourn him was to admit he was gone forever – and until they found his remains, a part of her would always hold the hope that somewhere, somehow, he'd survived.
As he had so often reminded her in their work – there were more things between Heaven and Earth… the world was full of unimagined possibilities.
Yet now the colour was appropriate, now it fit her, and it felt… strangely comforting. Her severe, suddenly more mature silhouette, an outward sign of solidarity with the other remaining souls as much as to mourn those who had been lost. Thinking about it, she really needed to find old Maggie Brown and thank her.
There weren't enough flowers in the world to express her gratitude for their hands reaching out to her, pulling her shivering like a new born lamb on an icy early morn. No doubt Maggie too was recounting her losses, recovering, searching for a way to make sense of it. Spending time with someone who'd been there, seen the things she'd seen, heard that horrendous silence, would no doubt be a relief. For all their genius neither Tesla, nor Watson, nor even Griffin, who had gotten himself into trouble more times than she could count, would ever fully comprehend. She made a decision whilst standing before the mirror, wide-brimmed hat framing her studious brow, to go in search of her at the earliest opportunity.
Ready for the world Helen left the suite, using the draw string bag from her dinner outfit to store her cash. She walked into the lobby, head held high, determined – a little impatient for familiar company, and some explanation of that contraption on Nikola’s table.
Even so, the sounds of the inquest trickling into the hall slowed her steps and made her strain her ears to hear. She glanced at the lobby clock: just coming up to one.
No. It was not prudent to just pop her head in. She reminded herself of that numb sensation which had griped her in that room. It was better to walk amongst the living, than dwell among thoughts of the dead.
As she was thinking about it a man hurried out from the corridor, holding onto his head as though he had the worst headache imaginable splitting his skull from ear to ear. Helen eyed him for a moment, noting the unusually desperate way he lurched forward, and the gritted teeth.
"Are you alright sir?" She moved towards him, but he didn't respond, continuing at a pace for the exit. The minute she'd said something everyone had noticed him. A bell boy had enquired; "Sir?" the doorman had hesitated to open the door – forcing the gentleman to push his own way through and onto the street.
Magnus picked up her already hurried pace, certain that he was in danger, throwing herself through the closing door as he ran off the steps and into the road. With horror, before she could even gasp in realisation, she watched a carriage run into him. The horses had swerved in opposites to avoid the man, smacking him with the centre bar, pummelling into his head and knocking him under as the wheels screeched to a stop and the horses reared in distress.
Onlookers stopped in their tracks, petrol-fuelled vehicles chocked to a stop, their engines giving out with noisy gasps. Helen automatically ran towards the carnage, towards the bleeding patient; pulling off the pale kid gloves and shoving them into her tiny bag as she navigated the halting traffic. She could feel the wind tugging on her hat and held it down as she reached the hapless chap, sprawled on the damp surface.
What on earth could've possessed him? She felt for a pulse, her other hand reaching for the head trauma, where blood was gushing liberally, to stem the flow. The pulse was faint, but he had one. She leant her ear to his partly open mouth, listening against the commotion for signs of life. Gently letting go of his head for a moment she opened his mouth wide and checked the airway was clear, before pulling off the man's jacket and ripping off the sleeve of his fancy dress shirt. She had thought to use the black mourning band that had been tied to his arm, but it came away in pieces, snagged on a piece of the carriage on impact and rendered entirely useless.
"Hey lady! Whatta ya doin'?"
She ignored the confused accusation, turning the shirt fabric into the best make-shift tourniquet she could, whilst observing the suspiciously soft-looking torso.
A rough hand landed on her shoulder, and she snapped onto the flat-capped driver with a fierce look in her eyes, "Trying to save this man's life! Now make sure the ambulance is on its way and give me room!"
The ebbing pulse and accompanying temperature drop against her skin turned her attention back to the patient's broken body. She grabbed the jacket, shrouding him in it as best she could to keep him warm – no easy task in the brisk Spring weather. That small glance of his body told the rational part of her that she was fighting a losing battle. Broken ribs, crumpled gut… if he wasn't bleeding internally she was a Hibernian fairy. She grabbed the patient's legs, elevating them in an attempt to improve his circulation, and send that precious blood where it was needed most.
Another man knelt beside her as she looked for something to put beneath the patient's head, he was older than the last man who’d approached her, but no less firm when he held onto her wrist.
"Your jacket," She beat him to whatever condescending kindness he'd been about to offer.
"Sorry?" he baulked, startled to be addressed so commandingly by a woman in this situation.
"Take your jacket," she nodded to the patient's head, "and put it beneath his head."
"And you really think that will help? There's nothing to be done my dear-"
She flared at that, "Put your jacket under his head now. I am a doctor; I know what I am doing."
He didn't look convinced, so she unceremoniously handed him the patient's legs and took the bowler hat from his head instead. Less comfortable, but it would have to do. The ambulance would be here soon, surely? Without a medical kit there wasn't much else she could do.
She thought to open his eye-lids to check for a response, but he was deteriorating, and fast, his body starting to lurch under the force of a fibrillating heart.
"He's gone into shock," She explained out loud, as though she had a team by her side. Her hands quickly drew back the heavier material around his chest, pressing down against the fabric of his shirt in timed compressions, but she could feel the flesh beneath give too easily, "Damn it, stay with me!"
There was running, a doctor clutching his top hat and medical kit being led into their circle by the driver. The pulse stopped dead, the body stilled, and the doctor – to Magnus' surprise – didn't launch into assisting the resuscitation but simply looked on sadly. Not that it would have helped. The injuries were just too many. Biting her bottom lip bitterly she withdrew, pressing her bloody fingers to the man's wrist in a sad gesture of comfort that could no longer register.
"Allow me," The doctor eventually stepped forward, probably expecting Magnus to follow everyone else's lead and step out of the way. She, however, was already tracing back the last few minutes in her head.
He'd come from the direction of the conference rooms, almost stumbled past, peculiar indeed. From the way he'd held his head, perhaps he had an underlying condition – a tumour, an infection, that had disorientated him.
"Are you a nurse ma'm?" the doctor had asked, checking the pulse and realising what was already fact – the man was dead. As if to punctuate the fact the body gave a horrific rasp as the air finally left the body, causing most of the crowd to flinch, and some of the women to hide their eyes in the arms of a man.
She looked into his green eyes, starting to get tired of repeating herself, "Doctor, actually. Doctor Helen Magnus." Without any discussion she started inspecting the body, the neck was clear of anything unusual: bruised, perhaps fractured in the spine.
"Well… er… Miss Magnus."
She glared momentarily.
"Doctor," he smiled briefly, "the gentleman is dead. This is a matter for the cops now."
She hummed thoughtfully, knowing instinctively that something beyond his control had caused this man to lose his life, and not just the tardiness of the ambulance.
"Why the hell did he go and run out in fron' of me, huh?!" the driver panicked, "Was he off his nut?!"
Magnus addressed him directly, making sure the short, round-faced man clutching onto his cap was paying attention.
"Listen to me," she instructed calmly, "take a deep breath. You're going pale and you need to calm down."
The other doctor finally started to pay attention to the other patient, "Here, sit down." He got him to perch on the carriage steps. "It's not your fault, alright. Just an accident," He soothed, looking for a bottle of brandy on his person before handing it over, "here. Good fer the nerves."
"Oh Lord abide!" vocalised another man in the crowd.
He'd recognised the body. Magnus zeroed in on him: in his forties, greying beard not unlike the late King Edward's. Seeing Helen had spotted him he offered an explanation, "He was at the inquest, not moments ago. I… I just stepped out for a… refreshment when I heard something had…"
Whispers immediately erupted, circulating the supposition that the man now dead on the floor had been a survivor, or lost a loved one to the Titanic. Struck by the tragedy, the crowd started making their own conclusions – ones Magnus couldn't wholly share.
"Please,” she started in response to one particular theory, addressing the pressing issue of nipping this irrationality in the bud, “why would he just decide to throw himself into oncoming traffic?"
"Who knows what notions get into a man after such a disaster?" voiced one of the bystanders.
"Yeah," came the murmured consensus.
Offering a confrontational sigh Magnus' logical retort was stopped before it had even begun. The police arrived, the ambulance hot on their heels, and they started separating spectators from witnesses, and moving people along in order to remove the body. She held her tongue, knowing it would only aggravate matters, and more than glad to hear them moving the crowd along with announcements that were purposefully neutral. The rumour mill was working overtime already, but if they were lucky the journalists would be too busy inside the hotel to have noticed. Soon, as the medics worked to remove the body from the scene, the only people left were the shaken cab driver, the doctor, the man who'd spoken out of the crowd, and herself.
"They'd had a Mr Bride testifying at the inquiry," explained the gentleman from the hotel, "last I saw this man they were getting to the… collision with the ice berg. I suppose he couldn't take it anymore. It must have been horrific-"
"Do you have any reason to suspect he was a survivor, sir?"
Helen watched as the ambulance crew hefted the body up and onto a stretcher, its contours marked beneath the grey sheet.
"Well, I mean, I think he might've been wearing an armband. Y'know: in mourning. So even if he weren't a survivor I reckon he must've lost someone. It does things to the mind, that kind of grief… I wouldn't be surprised if he just wanted to end it all. Listening to that testimony, those people went through a frozen hellhole."
Magnus tried not to look at them and draw attention to the fact she was eavesdropping. She was far from convinced by their analysis, frozen hellhole or not, and that the officer seemed to share their sentiments, actively pursuing suicide as his line of enquiry was worrying. He clearly wasn't thinking about the effect this would have on the family of the deceased, being told he'd tried to end his own life, and for what? She was a survivor, she knew. No one who'd been through all that, just for the chance to live, would give it up now. Not like this.
As they started to shut the doors to the ambulance the officer questioning him noticed she was taking a rather inordinate interest in the body and, having finished his scant questioning of the gentleman, began to ask for her statement instead.
"Sorry, to interrupt you, officer," she cut in halfway through, the ambulance trundling away, "but that man was not attempting to commit suicide."
The cop eyed her with surprise, "Is that so miss?"
She gave him her steadiest, most trust-inducing eye, "He was suffering from acute head pains, possibly from an underlying medical condition… perhaps a tumour in the brain. I dare say he was hardly aware of his surroundings, in which case this was an accident."
"And as a nurse you're qualified to diag-"
"Doctor, officer, I am a qualified and practicing doctor."
He gave her a look as if to say, who on earth would let a woman examine their ailments? And Magnus' back straightened, hands clasped and blood boiled.
"I want to speak to your superior please," she insisted.
"Look, I can see y'all real handy with the emergency aid and it was real charitable of ya to run to the gentleman's rescue ma'm, e'en if he really di'n't care for it, but there won't be no need to speak with my superior. We're jus' gonna finish takin' your statement-"
With a heavy sigh Magnus looked expectantly towards his slightly more senior colleague, who had paused midway through permitting the carriage driver to carry on his way.
"Do you really think this man's family will be satisfied when you tell them he just ran out into the traffic? Take me to the station; allow me to speak with the coroner to at least rule out the possibility."
This officer at least considered what she was saying for longer than two seconds. He looked back, thoughtfully, before noticing the growing look of fear on the driver's face as he worried for his future. Gently he patted the drivers shoulder with a nod, and allowed him to carry on, before approaching Helen and speaking with her in a more confidential manner.
"Ma'm I apologise if my colleague has insulted you, but if somethin' was at odds, our coroner or detectives will, as you so rightly pointed out, identify it."
"I highly doubt your colleagues will perform a dissection of the brain on one written testimony alone, officer, they will likely miss it entirely. If you would only allow me-"
"We're just doin' our jobs ma'm, and we ain't in no place to be lettin' strangers off of the street, medical degree or no, start gettin' involved in our investigations. Please. Just answer Officer Stein's questions and allow us to do our jobs."